With a starring role as a prison warder in Screw, the actor is also soon to wave goodbye to playing a genuine sitcom sensation, Derry Girls’s Michelle. She reflects on her long climb to overnight success, and what happens next
In a park opposite Belfast’s Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell is being photographed. It is a small, unassuming shoot; she has only popped outside briefly, catching a short spurt of sunshine on an otherwise gloomy Saturday. Yet within minutes, passersby are stopping on surrounding streets: murmurs of excitement, fingers pointing. A steady stream of selfie-hungry teenage girls muster up the courage to edge closer. “Oh feck,” I hear from behind me, “that’s Michelle from Derry Girls!”
Now filming its third and final series, Derry Girls has proved popular beyond all expectations. Critical acclaim was matched by nationwide public adoration: the show was Channel 4’s biggest new comedy in five years. And in Northern Ireland, the joyful sitcom set in 1990s Derry is a fully fledged sensation; the most watched series in the country since modern records began. Overnight, its lead actors were elevated to national treasure status. En route to meet O’Donnell, I had mentioned the purpose of my visit to my stoic, middle-aged taxi driver and he immediately turned giddy. Later, a mix-up over permissions to take pictures inside the gallery where we’re meeting was quickly resolved: one of the Derry Girls, is it? No bother, carry on.